“HONEY.” KAYLA’S mom held up a forest-green sweater with gold sparkle in the threading. “What do you think about this?”
Kayla eyed the sweater. She wished her mother gave her money to go shopping on her own. Her mom tried to be helpful, and used shopping trips as bonding time between them, but Kayla found it incredibly stressful. They didn’t have the same taste, and Kayla had difficulty trying to explain she didn’t like her mother’s choices. Her mother got disappointed and sad, but Kayla didn’t like certain clothes. She was sixteen, and old enough to pick clothes she liked and would wear.
“Not for me, Mom,” Kayla said. The neck of the sweater looked like it scooped pretty low. Kayla was already self-conscious about how large her chest had gotten. She didn’t need to show off her cleavage. She hated the way the boys stared like they wanted to touch, and the jealousy of some girls who weren’t as voluptuous yet. “Doesn’t it look too… revealing?”
“I’ve never in my life known a teenager who wanted to be so conservative,” Kayla’s mom muttered, putting the sweater back on the shelf.
“I’ve never heard of a mom who wanted her daughter to show off so much skin,” Kayla replied snottily.
“I do not want you to show off skin, but there is nothing wrong with appreciating your body and the assets God gave you. It’s nothing to be ashamed about, and I don’t want you feeling that way. Embrace your beauty, honey. Be comfortable in it.”
“I’m not ashamed, Mom, I swear.”
She might not be ashamed, but Kayla had difficulty thinking of any of her curves the same way as her mother, like they should be shown off, and she should be proud. Kayla… just didn’t care. Bodies, especially her own, held absolutely no appeal. She didn’t understand why, but she wished she did. Compared to the other girls in her class, it was unusual. It made her uncomfortable, like she didn’t fit in the way she should.
She crossed her arms in a determined manner, buckling in for an ongoing argument she had with her mother on a regular basis. “Can’t we go to the vintage store? There’s a fantastic second-hand one on Roosevelt.”
Her mom pressed her lips together. For some reason, she didn’t like the vintage store, as if hand-me-downs weren’t good enough for her daughter. Kayla didn’t understand why. They were always short on money, and this was a thrifty solution. Her mother usually appreciated a deal, but Kayla’s love for thrift stores was a sticking point for her.
Kayla looked around. The clothes here might be brand new and never worn before, but to her it didn’t mean they were any better. Generic and boring, pushed by the latest trends at a cheap price. At least decent finds at a thrift store had the potential for coolness. Kayla had fun piecing together comfortable outfits.
“Please, Mom.” Kayla frowned, trailing her fingers over some lacy sleeves of shirts hung on racks. “None of this is me.”
“You deserve new clothes. It’s fall already. Winter is on its way, and we should expand your wardrobe a bit.”
“The vintage store will have new clothes. New clothes to me, anyway.”
Her mother sighed. “I don’t understand what has happened to you over the last few years. You used to love dressing up, having new clothes, experimenting with makeup. But lately! Does this have anything to do with breaking up with that adorable boyfriend of yours? Is this a rebellious teenager stunt?”
“Yes, Mom,” Kayla said dryly, “I’m a rebel because I want vintage clothes. Next I’ll be robbing a bank.”
“Don’t get smart with me,” her mom said. “And cheerleading! I don’t get how you gave it up, or why. I wish you hadn’t.”
Kayla pinched the bridge of her nose, trying hard to hold back from rolling her eyes. Of course her mother circled around to cheerleading, of course she did. “I still dance,” Kayla said, leading the way from the girls’ clothes section. “There is nothing wrong with my contemporary dance class.” It hadn’t been a difficult decision to give up cheerleading after sophomore year. She liked the dancing, the routine and competition of it, but the overall presentation didn’t fit for her anymore. She’d much rather take dance classes once or twice a week at the local community center than wear tiny skirts and midriff tops in front of the whole school or a large crowd of spectators.
Kayla stopped in front of the bra rack, and she blushed. She hated talking about this, but it was time. “I think I could use a new one of these.”
“Bras can be so expensive, it’s ridiculous.” Her mother’s eyes roamed over the rack before she plucked two from it. “And they need to fit right or there is no point. I wish I could afford to get you a better one, but these will do for a while.”
“Can I get a sports one? For dance class?” She hated asking for too much, but she needed one for better support.
Her mother nodded and chose two sports bras she deemed suitable. “These should do all right.”
“I’m sure they’re fine,” Kayla said, grabbing them from her mother. “But I’ll go try them on.”
“Make sure they fit right.”
“I know, I know.” Kayla turned around and headed back to the change rooms.
Kayla didn’t look at her reflection while she pulled off her top and unhooked her older, stretched-out bra. She put on one of the new ones in simple beige, and turned to the mirror so she could look for the signs her mother taught her to make sure it fit right. It sat against the skin between her breasts, the underwire fitted against the side of her ribs and not on any fleshy tissue, and it didn’t poke her armpits. Her boobs didn’t look like they were going to spill over the top when she moved around and leaned over.
She shrugged. Good enough.
The other ones were tried on in the same efficient manner. First the two sports bras, and then finally the lacy blue one her mother had picked. When she was about to take it off, she paused.
Standing straight, she let her arms hang at her sides and she looked in the full-length mirror. Her jeans sat a little more snugly at the waist than they used to. She kept in shape, but without the intense conditioning of cheerleading, her stomach wasn’t as flat as it’d been a year ago. She didn’t mind it because she preferred to wear loose-fitting dresses with tights anyway, but she could probably use new pants. The bra was bright against her pale skin, and her long red hair hung down her back. Other girls she used to cheer with liked to talk about wearing sexy underwear, and some of them wore thongs and cute bras, and always with tight-fitting clothes over them.
Kayla never saw the point. She wanted to stay healthy, but she didn’t care if she was a size zero and could fit into sexy clothing. She preferred comfort.
She still hadn’t found that feeling yet.
KAYLA PULLED her new clothes out of the canvas bag she’d taken to the thrift store and started to sort through her purchases. Incredibly happy with what she had bought, it helped that they’d been such a great price too. At least her mother got into the mood of it, and found some cute dresses made from heavy wool she’d be able to wear once the autumn air became chillier.
There were plaid long-sleeve shirts—which were all the style anyway, and they didn’t have to pay full price for them—and some band shirts, and two cardigans. She adored the light scarves to wrap loosely around her neck, and she’d found suitable pairs of jeans and pants too. Her favorite piece was the gray bowler hat that fit perfectly on top of her heavy hair, and she put it on as she went through the rest.
She gathered the new clothes and included the dirty ones strewn all over her bedroom floor, and put it all in the laundry basket to carry to the communal laundry room in the basement of their apartment building. She promised her mother she would do the wash before she wore any of it in public. First stopping in the kitchen to grab a handful of change from the little dish they kept it in, she dragged the basket down the stairs.
The laundry room was empty. One of the dryers wobbled as it ran its cycle, but luckily both the washers were free. Kayla started to separate the clothes into darks and whites. She didn’t mind doing her laundry; in fact, she liked it, and had ever since her mother taught her the proper way so she didn’t ruin anything. Her mother was always busy, working full-time as a dental hygienist, and was involved with the Greenville High School Cheerleading Boosters club, even though Kayla wasn’t part of the squad anymore. Kayla liked helping whenever she could, especially since her father wasn’t in the picture and her mother worked so hard.
Lost in the methodical chore of laundry, she hummed and went over her new dance routine in her mind, when the door flew open with a bang. Kayla startled and dropped the dress she’d been about to put in the washing machine.
“Sorry,” the other person said.
Kayla looked up and saw Althea Ritter, a girl in her class. She didn’t know Althea very well—she’d moved to Greenville in their freshman year. Kayla had seen her around their apartment block since the beginning of summer, so her family must have recently moved in. She always saw Althea in passing, either heading to or from the building, and if Althea ever saw her, she made no indication of it. Kayla couldn’t think of a single time they’d ever spoken to each other.
“Oh,” Kayla said, bending to get the dropped dress. “No problem.”
Althea didn’t say anything else, but carried her empty basket to the dryer and pulled it open despite it not being done running yet. She stuck her hand inside, felt some of the clothes, and must have been satisfied because she started pulling them out.
Kayla worked on her laundry more slowly, watching Althea out of the corner of her eye. As an athlete, Althea immediately fit in with that crowd when she started school because she was such a skilled player. She was a star on the volleyball team, though she played basketball and was on the track team too. Easy to tell she was an athlete by looking at her, she wore baggy shorts showing off strong legs and a tank top that revealed surprisingly toned muscles in her arm. Her brown hair was shorn short to her head in a fauxhawk.
“What are you staring at?” Althea asked, but not looking over.
“Oh, nothing,” Kayla answered, dropping a cardigan into the washer. She carried on with her laundry without looking over again, embarrassed by being caught.
She heard Althea moving behind her, catching a glimpse in her peripheral vision when she headed to the door.
“Hey,” Althea said after she pulled the door open. Kayla glanced over. Althea wore green eye shadow, vibrant against her dark brown skin, and it made her eyes pop. “Nice hat.”
Kayla’s hand flew to her head, touching the rim of the bowler she forgot she wore. “Oh, I… thanks. It’s new.”
Althea’s eyes dropped to the basket with what remained of the second-hand store clothes, and then back up at Kayla. “Cool.”
“Um. Yeah,” Kayla said, ducking her head.
“You’re not cheerleading this year.”
Kayla turned back to her, surprised. She had no idea Althea even knew who she was, let alone that she’d previously been on the cheerleading squad. “No. I’m not anymore.”
Althea tilted her head to the side, not speaking. Kayla felt pinned under her gaze.
“But I hear you’re doing good this year,” Kayla added. “That’s awesome.” Althea continued to stare at her, and Kayla shifted awkwardly. She didn’t know why. “What?”
“You don’t come to games.”
Kayla shook her head. “I… no, I haven’t been to any yet.”
“You should,” Althea said. “You don’t have to wear a skirt to cheer there.”
Kayla burst into surprised laughter. “No, I guess you don’t. Maybe I will.”
“Okay.” Althea nodded and left the room, pulling the door closed behind her.
Kayla stood alone, holding a Beatles shirt in her hand, unsure what to make of the encounter. She shook it off and finished her chore, knowing she had to go upstairs to help with dinner.